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Four Steps for Rescuing Judaism and Justice in Israel

By Dr. Alon Tal

BEER SHEVA (Dec. 24, 2012) — Before the ballots are counted, now is the time to talk about some basic commitments to which all of the non-sectoral, Zionist parties should agree to make Israel a much better place for all to live. With right-wing Naftali Benet’s out-of-hand refusal to obey future orders to move Jews out of the West Bank, bellicose calls for new settlements and European sanctions appearing increasingly imminent, it’s clear that this country desperately needs a strong center-left coalition. And yet, Netanyahu still leads in the polls. Experience suggests that any coalition he leads will become a hostage to the narrow agenda of small minority sectors, often religious, who seek to maximize handouts to their constituents at the expense of the public interest and to reign in any non-Orthodox forms of Judaism.


While there is plenty to disagree about with the Likud in terms of social justice, privatization and Palestinian national rights, there are some Zionist values that we all presumably share. As a candidate in Tzipi Livni’s HaTnuah party I have been calling on all mainstream parties in Israel to agree on the following program for a more equitable Jewish life, regardless of who forms or sits in the coalition.


Liberate the Knesset Finance Committee

The chairman of the Knesset Finance Committee has the power to disapprove or delay the national budget each year, influencing thousands of budget items along the way. The post, with its remarkable leverage, has traditionally been a Haredi stronghold, used quite effectively to promote narrow sectoral interests. Rather than serving as a check and balance that benefits all, they typically bring a narrow agenda which leaves most of us completely invisible — especially those of us who would promote a liberal, religiously pluralistic agenda. All Zionist parties should agree that the chair of the Finance Committee needs to be reserved for a leader who is part of the national consensus, committed to supporting all segments of Israel’s diverse society, including Arabs and Haredim.


Redefine Israel’s status quo

Today we face a situation where the State of Israel clings to a widely disliked status quo, established some 60 years ago, regarding religion in public life. It mostly serves to increase the enmity and loathing between different Jewish communities within Israel. The status quo is also unfair, blatantly discriminating against Israel’s poor populations who often can’t afford to buck the restrictions by driving on Shabbat when there are no buses, or flying to Cyprus to get married when the only local option is to wed under the aegis of an ultra-Orthodox rabbinate that scorns their way of life and violates their values. For many in the secular majority, the constraints turn our glorious Jewish heritage into an ugly, suffocating tyranny. To me this feels like a tragedy.


Among the necessary changes are offering public transportation and full recreational opportunities on Shabbat. This may actually have a salubrious effect on Jewish life. We all know that the main expressions of Jewish identity among the Israeli public — fasting on Yom Kippur, posting a Mezuzah, having a brit for newborn boys or lighting Shabbat candles — take place without government coercion. A new status quo might allow young Israelis a chance to develop a healthy identification with their tradition. It is time to stop Orthodox bullying and religious monopolies that leave an increasingly number of Israelis hostile to a Jewish culture that they never really get a chance to know.


Keep the Ministry of Housing and Interior out of the hands of sectoral parties

Much like the Finance Committee, the past years have left two critical ministries in the hands of Shas, a party that defines itself as advocating the interests of ultra-Orthodox Sephardic Jews. This manifests itself in Israel’s Ministry of Housing in many ways. Is it any wonder that housing mortgages are now prioritized according to “marriage seniority?” The longer a couple is married the higher the likelihood of receiving generous mortgages. This means that if you don’t go to the army and, instead, marry young, you enjoy an advantage over other couples, most of whom gave the best years of their lives to serving in the military or national service.


The favoritism surely doesn’t stop there. The Ministry of Interior, with its control over the budgets of municipalities, also wields incredible influence, enjoyed disproportionately by communities with a connection to Shas’ political agenda. It’s time that these ministries offer all citizens and communities equal access to the benefits that they are responsible for allocating.


A richer menu for marriage, conversion and burial

Hundreds of thousands of Israelis today, especially in the Russian community, are part of the Jewish mainstream, but are not recognized as Jews under Orthodox halachic law. Many more opt out of the rigid and often degrading demands made by an increasingly ultra-Orthodox rabbinate that controls our marriage ceremonies. The State of Israel needs to recognize that its policies are responsible for young Israelis turning their backs on traditional Jewish weddings and take steps to create new frameworks to accommodate a diversity of religious perspectives. The Jewish State should stop pushing citizens away from meaningful Jewish experiences in the most important lifecycle events. This would mean limiting the rabbinate’s authority and allowing for a broad range of legally acceptable rituals — from births, through marriages and burials — as well a rich menu of conversion opportunities.


Not only would such measures increase the quality of life for the Israeli majority, they would also go a long way to bridging the growing gap between the State of Israel and the Reform and Conservative Jewish majorities living outside the country. Justifiably, they increasingly feel alienated from a homeland whose officials dismiss the legitimacy of their Jewish identity and leadership.


As voters in Israel seek compelling reasons to prefer one of the center-left parties over the other, they would do well to remember that there is one party whose chair defines herself as a Masorti (Conservative) Jew and who cares about these issues. Tzipi Livni and HaTnuah don’t only offer a hope for peace with our neighbors. We offer hope that life in the third Jewish Commonwealth need not become a battle against Orthodox dominance, but rather a celebration of Jewish diversity, religious freedom and equity.




Dr. Alon Tal is a co-founder of Aytzim: Ecological Judaism.


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